Meredith Farkas has pulled together a series of her thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 on libraries. This statement made me feel particularly seen:

“While my commitment to my place of work feels deeply broken, my commitment to the people I work with is stronger than ever. And I’m struggling with the conflicted feelings all of that brings up.”

Thoughts on work, well-being, solidarity, and advocacy in our current… situation” by Meredith Farkas

And this one:

“Also related to the “can’t pay people who can’t do their jobs online” argument: If you aren’t thinking of new ways that you can support your community during this difficult time and are only moving existing services online, you are suffering from a failure of imagination. Any manager that isn’t trying to find work their staff can do during a closure is failing at their job.”

Thoughts on work, well-being, solidarity, and advocacy in our current… situation” by Meredith Farkas

Personally, I am in this moment stuck between what could be a wellspring of creativity and collaboration, on one side, and complete immobility on the other. I can feel myself moving out of a calcified state (caused by two solid weeks of crisis communications mode) and toward something new. Just think: if we were to assume our current working-remotely situation becomes status quo for the foreseeable future, together we could create some remarkable platforms and experiences for our students and faculty.

Calliandra eriophylla, silhouetted

In “Attending To the Whole Student: Higher Ed’s 2016 Trend,” Steven Bell writes:

“As collaborators, academic librarians already work with residential life, student services, career centers, and other academic and social support staff to contribute to any effort to meet students where and when the need for help arises. […] Academic librarians are proving themselves more perceptive than other learning and support units at getting in tune with students who demand their institutions pay attention to social justice, equality, and diversity issues. Alone, academic librarians won’t meet all student needs, but they certainly demonstrate the ability to connect with students in ways that contribute to a whole health approach.”

Part of my job is to think about (and execute) ways to engage students with the library in ways that reach beyond the reference desk, the classroom, and the stacks. To that end, much of my week is spent meeting with potential collaborators. This constant back and forth between the library and other campus offices has begun to change my perspective on how the library can contribute to the education of “the whole student.” I feel more in tune with the mission of the university. If this is the direction that academic libraries sail in 2016, you can bet I’ll be on board.

Because if 100% of your time is devoted to maintaining the status quo, when do you invent the future?

-Andromeda Yelton, You Say You Want a Revolution: ebooks, licensing, and the future

This quote comes at the end of a discussion of ebook licensing and the future of digital text. The topic is important in its own right, but I want to focus on the bit at the end regarding Google’s 20% time, or as it’s technically called, “Innovation Time Off.” Much has been said about this practice over the years and at the risk of spending my 20% time (i.e. my lunch break) beating the proverbial horse, I want to draw your attention to it.

If you are not familiar with the idea, Google’s Innovation Time Off is based on a practice at 3M that allows employees to spend a certain amount of their time at work focusing on whatever they feel might be beneficial to the company. According to a 2007 article from the NYTimes, staff form “grouplets” to work on pet projects, “these grouplets have practically no budget, and they have no decision-making authority. What they have is a bunch of people who are committed to an idea and willing to work to convince the rest of the company to adopt it.” The only stipulation for using Innovation Time Off is that employees must keep the company updated on the progress of their project.

NPR has a similar practice called “Serendipity Day.” According to Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab, “Serendipity Day is actually spread out over three days — and for something labeled as spontaneous, there’s a lot of planning. The staff is given two or three weeks to think about what to build. The ramp-up begins the afternoon before Serendipity Day, and the presentations happen the morning after. That way, all eight hours of the main day are spent building.” Because Google’s model would not work for NPR given its size and budget, Serendipity Day is a less resource-intensive alternative to 20% time. Yet it still gives staff the ability to exercise innovative thinking on a regular schedule and to share the results with colleagues.

And there is, in my opinion, the gem of the idea: sharing. It is not so much the scheduled time for innovative/creative thinking that matters. It is the required show-and-tell that follows. Both Google and NPR ask only that their employees share the results of their creative work. It doesn’t matter if the ideas are good or bad. That isn’t the point of the exercise. The point (and the hope) is that the ideas, once out in the open, will collide with other ideas, other hunches, and hopefully become part of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible” : the entirety of possible connections that make innovation possible and help ideas to “level up” (see also, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), Chapter 1).

Library leaders current and future should take this practice to heart. Not only does it relieve you of the responsibility of being the lead innovative force in your institution, but it allows your organization to remain flexible, helps you to identify unexpected solutions to essential problems, and more efficiently utilize the creative potential of your employees. Ask yourself: “When will we invent the future?”

Special thanks to Janel Kinlaw (@jcwlib) for bringing the NPR story to my attention. 

The popularity of embedded librarian programs in academic libraries is no doubt one result of the profession’s need to redefine its service model in a time of dramatic changes in information architecture, production, and access. As Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg’s 2009 report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age” [pdf], shows, students bypass librarians in order to access academic resources the vast majority of the time. We gave up our roles as information gatekeepers in the last century and, not soon after, began to see our roles as information guides slip away as well. Our response: redefine the role of the academic librarian in the research process.

The professional literature provides a number of successful examples of embedded librarianship: Tumbleson & Burke (2010) focused on the relationship between faculty and librarians in Blackboard for distance education students, going beyond simple course integration. Librarians at the Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins University and Purdue University Libraries embedded librarians outside the library to become partners in faculty research (Brandt, 2007; Kolowich, 2010). Kesselman & Watstein (2009) provide a number of other successful examples, including one program at Rutgers which brought together librarians, faculty, and students from the Food Science, Nutritional Sciences, the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, and the School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies to solve real-world problems in the food industry (the librarians also helped faculty co-write the grant for the program).

All of these projects are examples of meaningful integration. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for a few weeks now, trying to think of ways in which our services can be meaningful to students and faculty. It isn’t enough to simply be useful, though that is certainly one aspect of it. I started writing down a list of characteristics that, to me, help define “meaningful integration”:

Library services must be transformative.

If we want to make a difference, we have to change the way students perceive information resources, research, and, in turn, our role in the process. We need to elicit change that shakes the foundation and produces visible (preferably measurable, but I’ll take visible) results. Notably, we have to inspire change in individuals and so:

Library services must be personal.

While we make broad sweeps to change what we do, we also need to focus on the relationships we have with individual faculty and students. If social media has taught us anything over the past decade, it’s that the individual has a tremendous impact on local communities and social groups. Dramatically changing one person’s perception of the library (or research, or information, etc.) has the potential to ripple outward to others. To make these personal connections happen, we need to be “close to the metal” of academic life, whether that be faculty research or student coursework, and so:

Library services must be where the action is.

Every connection starts with a shake of the hand, be it face-to-face or virtual, but we need to be there, standing next to our user, to make it happen.

Each of these characteristics work together to bolster the effects of the other. It seems to me (and I haven’t quite worked out the “how” yet) that the three are inseparable and indispensable if our aim is to become meaningfully integrated into the shifting information landscape. I would even go so far to say that they provide a recipe for success regardless of any and all future changes in libraries, the academy, and information architecture.

And there you have it: your strategic plan for the day. =)




Brandt, D.S. (2007). Librarians as partners in e-research: Purdue University Libraries promote collaboration. C&RL News 68(6), 365-367, 396.

Kolowich, S. (2010, June 9). Embedded librarians. Inside Higher Ed. Available at

Kesselman, M. A. & Watstein, S. B. (2009). Creating opportunities: Embedded librarians. Journal of Library Administration, 49(4), 383-400.

Tumbleson, B.E. &  Burke, J.J. (2010). When life hands you lemons: Overcoming obstacles to expand services in an embedded librarian program. Journal of Library Administration, 50(7-8), 978-988.

I’m a huge advocate for building and engaging in online communities. Recently, I wrote an article for the SLIS Descriptor, a publication of San Jose State University’s ALA Student Chapter, detailing how and why LIS students should get involved in communities online.

The mind can discover some remarkable things when moved beyond the pressures of the classroom and the compulsion to perform. All it requires is space in which to play and other minds with which to engage. As students in an online program that favors asynchronous communication and lacks a physical, communal space, how can we recreate these experiences?

Online communities offer surrogate spaces for these interstitial moments by providing some of the benefits of physical information commons (or “information grounds” as they are sometimes called) , but in digital form: a shared space (the software or platform), a shared culture (interests, hobbies, or in our case, LIS studies), and a shared language (netiquette). Just as a physical campus has predefined pathways between buildings that can facilitate chance meetings and conversations, online communities provide various opportunities for serendipitous discovery through shared links, shared digital interfaces, and common connections (e.g. friends of friends).

You can read the full article at the SLIS Descriptor blog.